Radio, it seems, has become like a utility: We take it for granted because it's always there. Like the lights, we don’t appreciate them until they go out.
Radio bashing is popular these days. Everyone wants to take a shot, because radio has been around so long and because they are assuming -- wrongly -- that radio has lost its audience to television and the Internet.
True, new technology is changing everything. Craigslist and online news content dramatically altered the newspaper business years ago, and there's little sign of recovery. Yet in spite of the success of online audio, there is no evidence that it has dramatically altered terrestrial radio listening. Yes, radio listeners are sharing listening with online audio, but they have not abandoned radio the way so many readers abandoned the newspaper.
It seems to me that just about every time someone makes a case for radio becoming the next disappearing act, an event occurs that reinforces what cannot be done -- or at least, isn't being done -- by digital audio.
Last week's unfortunate events in Boston were a perfect example. A crowd of hundreds of thousands was dispersed following the bombings and told to go home immediately. Many left on foot, but most of Boston commutes by car, and those curious commuters turned to radio for their coverage. And for those who want to say, "Yeah, but they have their smartphones," let's not forget that cell service soon became unavailable -- most likely through overload, though some reported that authorities had service shut down to prevent the triggering of additional devices by cell phone.
There is no doubt that Boston radio stations rose to the occasion. Radio Ink has reported on many instances in which radio covered stories others just did not have. Because of great radio stations equipped with street reporters and large operations, radio in Boston stepped up the plate for Boston residents, further reinforcing radio’s value.
I'm sure the residents felt a huge loss when their smartphones became useless, but there would have been fear and outrage if the radio had not been there to inform them.
Further reinforcing radio's value was Hurricane Sandy, earlier in the year, when residents were stranded for days, and, in some cases, weeks without power. No power to charge their mobile devices, no cable or Internet service in their homes, no power to mobile towers, no ability to deliver newspapers, no way to power the television.
It's time radio became recognized for what it offers. Though the digital era may usher in change, we must not forget that radio's distribution is deep, with an average of 5.5 units per home and distribution in virtually every car. We must also reinforce that we have backup transmitters at almost every radio tower site in America that can operate for days when power is down and battery-operated or car radios are the only form of mass communication in town.
There are only a few instances a year when the Internet and power are out and there is no way to charge a smartphone, yet those are the times people instinctively turn to their radios. You may be entertaining yourself on your iPad, but when you're driving and see a looming storm, a burning building, or even just a traffic jam, radio continues to be your lifeline.
Everyone, it seems, wants to imitate us, grab our audiences and our advertisers, yet few are willing to build the teams necessary to cover a major tragedy in town or keep the staff available to inform a community -- and none can touch radio's ability to remain on the air when the power, the Internet, and other forms of communication fail.
One area we can improve as an industry is in our ability to sell our strengths in times when radio shines extraordinarily bright. Attacks from other sources will continue with the intent of stealing our audience relationships. New music or radio services from giants like Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, and Apple will continue to try to erode our audience loyalty. We must not get complacent and assume they cannot make progress, or let any complacency extend to our own industry promotion efforts. When radio shines, we need to make sure the world knows, to remind them of what we already know. Radio is the lifeline for America.